New era for business in Leimert Park

Within a month, a quiet closure and a successful opening on Degnan Boulevard

Michelle Papillion | Kevin Tsukii

Michelle Papillion at her gallery. | Kevin Tsukii

March 15 marked the first month of business for Papillion, a contemporary gallery created and run by Michelle Papillion. The art space opened amid construction on the neighborhood’s anticipated Metro stop and the Leimert Park Village Committee’s plans to restore the historic Vision Theater. The gallery is the first new business to emerge from the “renaissance” of Leimert Park. Despite the closure of a neighboring business and anticipated rent increases due to the neighborhood’s proximity to the light rail, Papillion said the cutting-edge gallery has been a success.

She called the first month “amazing,” explaining, “We had our grand opening on Feb. 15 and 500 people showed up…what happened at our opening was exactly how I envisioned it.”

Papillion added that the initial days of any business are especially tough because the period of time usually requires a higher overhead cost to establish the business and deal with unforeseen issues.

But as Papillion began to look forward to more successful months, Zambezi Bazaar, a family-owned shop and Papillion’s next-door neighbor, quietly closed its doors.

“I didn’t know they were actually leaving,” Papillion said with a surprised look.

The Zambezi Bazaar was one of the stores anchoring Degnan Boulevard as the center of Black culture and arts in Los Angeles. Just two years ago, in 2012, Curren Price, who was at the time a state senator, chose Zambezi Bazaar to represent the 26th Senate District at the California Small Business Day event in honor of the store’s cultural significance.

Even so, Leimert Park supporters say the closure of an honored business like Zambezi won’t necessarily translate into the demise of culture in Leimert Park.

See also: Leimert Park Art Walk audio slideshow

Degnan Boulevard is in a “state of transition and I think the process is evident in the new art gallery,” said Clint Rosemond, manager of the Greater Leimert Park Area Business Improvement District and one of the main stakeholders in the Leimert Park Village restoration initiative.

Making change happen in a place that’s trying to hold onto its heritage may be hard but, “no good things come out of a routine that stays forever,” Papillon said.

According to Rosemond, the Zambezi Bazaar closed due to a dispute over rental payment. The owners of Zambezi could not be reached for comment.

Zambezi is the first business on Degnan Boulevard to close since the Leimert Park light rail station was confirmed. However, Rosemond is confident that, with the community’s involvement, the neighborhood can succeed in preserving the neighborhood’s unique personality including stores like Zambezi.

“We’ve never seen this type of response of people coming and participating,” Rosemond said.

Having stores that contribute to Leimert Park’s culture is crucial for a business area like Degnan Boulevard, he said. Businesses here rely on events that bring patrons. For that, the storeowners need to be willing to help plan events and festivals that engage the community and educate visitors.

Papillion believes that the shops rely on each other to bring new customers to the area. However, Eso Won Books, across the street from the gallery, has not yet seen any significant increase in foot traffic since the opening of Papillion.

“They haven’t been around long enough” to make a noticeable difference, said Thomas Hamilton, co-owner of the bookstore which focuses on Black authors.

Although Papillion did not grow up in Leimert Park (she was born in Oakland and previously worked in New York) she said she has not experienced negative pushback as an outsider opening a business in the tightly-knit neighborhood.

Currently, development and revitalization in Leimert Park seems to be moving towards the arts. At the Leimert Park Vision meetings Rosemond said that there has been a lot of interest from the community in developing a space where artists can live and work as well as another art gallery inside the Vision Theatre.

See also: Leimert Park envisions the neighborhood in 2020

“At this point there’s a lot of momentum in the arts,” said Rosemond, and that push can help support Papillion as she competes with what she described as a “rapidly expanding” contemporary art market in Los Angeles.

Papillion said her gallery is unique because she invests a great deal of time researching artists.

“Once I decide to work with that person there’s a very serious financial commitment,” she said. “It’s a business, and you spend money but you have to make money.”

As part of her plan, Papillion hopes to share her artistic vision with those both inside and outside of Leimert Park.

“Something like this, this space, what I’m doing here — yes it’s for this community but it’s for everybody,” Papillion said. “I want everyone in L.A. to be able to experience it…to easily access it. You know, hop on a train and then you’re here. That’s going to be a really exciting thing when it’s done.”


Click to discover more from Leimert Park’s third renaissance.


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